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6 Brain Benefits of Exercise — Including Staving Off Alzheimer’s

Scientists have discovered that a hormone called irisin, which is released during exercise, may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, New Scientist reports. The findings, learned from tests with mice, add to a growing body of knowledge pointing to how physical activity can benefit the brain.

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While researchers said they hoped to eventually find a drug that could target irisin in the brain of humans and possibly reverse dementia and Alzheimer’s, why wait for a drug? Here are six reasons to exercise now, whether you’re trying to stave off brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, or possibly reverse them now:

1. Exercising your legs improves the neurological health of your brain. New research shows that the signals between your brain and leg muscles form a two-way street, and that improving leg muscle strength and particularly load-bearing strength can help the part of the brain that deals with stress and everyday challenges. Interestingly, in one study, leg strength was found to be a better predictor for brain health than any other lifestyle factor researchers reviewed.

2. Weight-bearing exercise helps mitochondrial health and function, which improves your body’s ability to fight off chronic disease as well as neurodegeneration of the brain. Indeed, weight-bearing against gravity itself is a crucial component of life that allows the human body and brain to function optimally. This has been clearly elucidated by Joan Vernikos, Ph.D., former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division, in her book "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals."

3. Previous research has shown that exercise in any form is a key way to protect, maintain and improve your cognitive capacity, including fighting dementia. There are a number of different mechanisms behind this body-brain link. One, perhaps key, factor is related to how exercise affects brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is found in both your muscles and your brain.

4. Exercise also helps protect and improve your brain function by:

  • Improving and increasing blood flow (oxygenation) to your brain
  • Increasing production of nerve-protecting compounds
  • Reducing damaging plaques in your brain
  • Altering the way these damaging proteins reside inside your brain, which appears to slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease

5. Exercise improves blood flow and oxygenation to your brain, which helps explain why what is good for your heart and cardiovascular system is also good for your brain. The increased blood flow that results from exercise allows your brain to almost immediately function better. As a result, you tend to feel more focused after a workout, which can improve your productivity.

6. Exercise also helps reduce plaque formation of beta-amyloid peptides, associated with Alzheimer's. By altering the way damaging proteins reside inside your brain, exercise may help slow neurodegeneration.

The good news is it’s never too late to begin an exercise program. Even nonexercise movement, such as just getting up out of your seat once an hour while you work at your desk can help. And speaking of work, one solution that can work for many is to get a standup desk. Simply bearing weight on your two legs produce a biochemical cascade that cuts your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.

Another solution is, rather than opting for convenience, take every opportunity you can to walk (or bicycle) rather than drive. Park further away; take the stairs rather than the elevator.

No matter your age, you can begin a movement program that will benefit you all over. Remember, those who exercise the most tend to have the least amount of brain shrinkage over time. Not only that, but exercise actually causes your brain to grow in size.

So, get moving and keep moving for best results. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise and strength training (especially super slow workouts) stretching, and core work, along with walking about 10,000 steps a day.